The Rebel Abbot of Zen Mountain

Snapshots of John Daido Loori Roshi

Sean Murphy

Maezumi Roshi and John Daido Loori Roshi

Maezumi Roshi helped with a down payment, but the rest was up to Daido Roshi. By his own account, the place was saved from foreclosure at one point by a would-be resident who showed up at the eleventh hour, handing Daido Roshi her cash payment for an entire year’s residency up front. Winters without central heating were so cold that residents sat zazen [sitting meditation] swathed in blankets, emitting white clouds with every breath.

But despite his enormous efforts on behalf of the dharma, Daido Roshi would have shuddered at being presented as a saint. Having formed a close connection with him as his assistant at Naropa University, I spent nearly as much informal time with him as in formal settings, and noticed early on how completely at ease he was with simply being himself. If who he was at any given moment matched people’s expectations of what a Zen master should be, that was fine; if it didn’t, that was fine too. He had little patience for social obligations or ceremonial duties, except when he felt these involved an actual opportunity to present the living dharma.

Although Daido Roshi was one the great American masters of the Zen koan system and a deep scholar of the Zen classics, he was fond of using Western references to clarify points of practice. He’d quote from “Zorba the Greek” or “Alice in Wonderland,” or use Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the ugly duckling to illustrate the point that we are all buddhas, despite appearances. He loved to quote Walt Whitman; he felt the poet must have experienced a deep realization of his true nature to create work of such depth and clarity. My wife will always fondly recall how, just after we were married, he sang Italian love songs to us over lunch.

The man had range.

Here are a few words offered by Roshi’s students and friends.

—Sean Murphy

Sean Murphy’s latest novel, “The Time of New Weather,” was awarded First Place for Best Novel in the National Press Women Communications Awards.

 

It was an exciting time, when Maezumi Roshi’s first dharma successors were training together at Zen Center of Los Angeles. Tetsugen (Bernie Glassman) was developing Zen businesses, Dennis Genpo Merzel adapted EST Training for Zen, Joko Beck’s piano music drifted through the dark after zazen, and Daido produced Zen Center publications. I was the center’s physician. When Daido’s young son developed a headache, we thought it was a sinus infection, until he began watching TV with one eye shut. A brain scan showed a tumor in a location that made complete surgical removal impossible. Daido’s son was given a very small chance of surviving five years. Daido went to Maezumi Roshi, sobbing. Maezumi Roshi’s usual mode was grandmotherly kindness. In this case, a tiger emerged, attacking. How dare Daido collapse in self-pity! This was no time to give in to grief! He must rouse all his energy, think creatively, and do all he could to help his son! Daido emerged with new determination and strength. I put him in touch with doctors and therapists who practiced energetic healing, and while his son underwent surgery and treatments, Daido did energy work with him. His son is now a grown man and a father himself. Daido was always willing to learn and to do what worked. He told this story with great appreciation of Maezumi Roshi’s skillful ferocity.

—Jan Chozen Bays Roshi

I remember once seeing Daido Roshi come into the dining hall. He was casting about, looking for something. There was a young guy, maybe twenty-one years old—a new Zen student on his first residency. He asked shyly, “Roshi, is there something I can do for you?” Daido looked at him. “Yes,” he said. “Realize your true nature.” Then he went on about his business.

—Gerry Choko Reese, Mountains and Rivers Order senior lay practitioner

I connected with Daido in the 1990s in New York City. I knew little about the dharma. But I connected with zazen and the precepts, especially “Stop creating evil,” in which I recognized the trajectory of my life: I had come to practice in my mid-twenties after a nightmarish decade of drugs and alcohol. Daido learned I was one of those clean and sober people in the sangha, although still fairly young. In an early dokusan [teacher interview], he brought it up and then did the most unexpected thing—he gave a gassho [placing palms together at the heart] with a deep bow—and said, “Thank you for taking care of this at the start of your practice.” I was startled, because something I thought of with great embarrassment was being shown great respect. When practice later began to whittle away at my defensiveness, and my teacher began to appear fierce and demanding, I always knew that the person facing me held me with true love and respect, even if I didn’t feel it at that moment.

—Anonymous

I am in the monastery, teaching contemplative care of the dying. One monk has fainted during the program. Others are attentive and subdued. Old Christian ancestors seem present, even though the atmosphere is heartily Zen. It is fall, the leaves are red and gold. I join the gray-robed students who sit in straight lines for zazen.

I find the stampede to dokusan startling and equally startling, the voice of the monk admonishing those who are lax. I can sniff Japan and the Marine Corps, but I like the strength of the whole scene. This is Daido’s place, and it is plainly a reflection of his psyche, his heart.

A monk informs me that Daido has invited me to spend the evening with him and a few others at his house. I make my way to his modest home in the falling afternoon light, I find Daido and several others in front of a large TV, entranced by the hugely energetic dancing of Michael Flatley and his Irish Riverdance group. A moment of cognitive dissonance; then I find a seat on a broken-down couch and join in.

That night I enjoyed my friend’s utter and naked pleasure at things seemingly non-Zen. I was grateful that he did not drag meaning into our midst.

 —Roshi Joan Halifax, founder of Upaya Zen Center, Prajna Mountain Buddhist Order

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